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As Clinton sounds interest rate alarm, does Congress think it's for real?

Updated at 4:50pm ET With a lame-duck session of Congress set for the weeks after the Nov. 6 election, members of Congress face the task of taking steps to reduce the deficit before inevitable interest rate hikes push the nation into a debt crisis with profound, long-lasting consequences.

Former President Bill Clinton gave a reminder of the task ahead as he renewed his warning Sunday about a surge in interest rates and a potential debt crisis.

Andrew Burton / Reuters

Former President Bill Clinton introduces his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, before her speech at the Clinton Global Initiative 2012 in New York on September 24, 2012.

“If interest rates were the same today as they were when I was president, the payment on the debt, that is, what the taxpayers have to pay every year, the financial debt (payments) would go from $250 billion to $650 billion a year,” Clinton warned on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday.

Congress and President Barack Obama, he said, “can't let that happen” – so they must strike a deal on reducing deficits and debt.

While acknowledging that the U.S. economy right now is anemic, Clinton said, “When the economy starts to grow and people start borrowing money again, and banks start loaning money to small businesses and not just big ones, interest rates will go up, because there will be more competition for money.”

Clinton has been trying for months to warn of what he sees as a danger. Last May he said as soon as the economy begins to grow “interest rates will go through the roof, the cost of financing the deficit will be staggering, and the private sector will be screaming for affordable credit.”

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The federal government’s cost of borrowing has been kept artificially low since 2008 by the financial crisis, the recession, and the fiscal turmoil in Europe. That European factor makes U.S. Treasury securities look safer than the sovereign debt of many European countries.

Right now, the yield on the ten-year Treasury note is about 1.72 percent. That compares to the average yield over the past 60 years of about 6 percent on the ten-year Treasury note.

Steve Bell, senior director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington and former staff director of the Senate Budget Committee, said Monday, “President Clinton is right.” Bell said the average rate on the ten-year Treasury note over the past three decades has been about 4.75 percent. The Bipartisan Policy Center estimates that if that interest rate were prevailing, “we would spend more money on the interest payment on the debt than we would for all of our national defense.”

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In the fiscal year which ends next week, the government will have spent about $220 billion on interest payments and $670 billion on defense, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

He added, “Interest rates are going to rise from here; the question is whether they’re going to rise quickly or whether they’re going to rise gradually. History teaches us that they can rise very quickly once the economy starts getting into full gear – around 3 percent real GDP growth.”

Bell said when European economies sort out their debt and fiscal problems, “the unusual flight to safety, which has really kept American interest rates so low – because people put their money here rather than risk it anywhere else – that will slow down and then cease.” 

Bell said in four years if interest rates gradually return to historic norm of 4.75 percent on the ten-year note, the federal government will be spending as much on interest as it does on all discretionary programs, both defense and non-defense.

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Bell said many, perhaps most, members of Congress have been lulled into a sense that low interest rates and low federal borrowing costs will continue.

“Most of them looked at last year’s debt ceiling debacle, they saw that Standard & Poor’s downgraded the United States debt –  and that interest rates went down after that, instead of going up,” Bell said. “So when we go on the Hill and we warn them that, ‘Hey, something bad will happen if we get downgraded again they say, ‘That’s what you said last year and it didn’t happen.’”

Clinton’s interest rate warning came a week after a group of conservative economists and former Treasury officials including former Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State George Shultz sounded the same alarm in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. “The debt burden will explode when interest rates go up,” wrote Shultz, joined by Stanford University economists Michael Boskin, John Cogan, and John Taylor, as well as Carnegie Mellon University economist Allan Meltzer. Boskin and Taylor served as economic advisors to President George H. W. Bush.

They noted that the Treasury “now has a preponderance of its debt issued in very short-term durations, to take advantage of low short-term interest rates. It must frequently refinance this debt which, when added to the current deficit, means Treasury must raise $4 trillion this year alone.”